Before I get to Omaha’s B-cycle bike-sharing program, some background on how I became a B-cycle evangelist.
Like you, I was confused at what B-cycle was for. I assumed (as most people who I’ve talked to unfamiliar with the program) that B-cycle is designed for joy rides. You see the racks, you figure people who don’t own bikes check them out and pedal around for the day, maybe spend the afternoon on the Keystone Trail or tooling around the Old Market.
That’s not what they’re for. I figured it out this past spring in Austin while making my annual pilgrimage to the South By Southwest Music Festival. South By Southwest — or SXSW — is hugely popular. So much so that most hotels within walking distance of the festival’s primary playground — the string of music venues along 6th Street — are booked more than a year in advance. The few hotel rooms still available a few months prior to the fest are priced at around $300 per day if you can find them and can go for as much as $600 for convenient, clean, modern rooms.
Most fans and bands who make the pilgrimage don’t have that kind of money to throw away and stay in hotels miles north where they’re forced to take expensive, elephantine shuttles back and forth to 6th St.
This year I got lucky and found a hotel on the other side of the Colorado River, about a mile from where the action is. The place was kind of seedy and smelled of acidic room deodorizer, but the room only cost $80 a night and was within walking distance to 6th St. The perennial problem, of course, was that after a full day of standing in various clubs (because there’s nowhere to sit at SXSW), walking a mile or so back to the hotel at 2 a.m. was torture.
Then I discovered the answer: B-cycle.
The concept: Rent bikes for commuting. Here’s the deal (and read this carefully): For $8 per day ($6 per day in Omaha), you can ride a bike to and from B-Cycle bike racks located throughout the city. You never get charged more than the one-time $8-a-day fee if you can get your rental bike from one rack to the next in less than 30 minutes. If you go over 30 minutes, you’re charged an additional $4 per half hour, but you’d have to be really drunk not to get back to your hotel in that amount of time. A handy smartphone app shows where the closest bike kiosk is to your destination.
A drawback to B-Cycles — they look ridiculous, like half-thought-out modern-day versions of vintage bikes that resemble whatever the Wicked Witch of the West was riding in Dorothy’s tornado dream, just awkward enough to embarrass people from using them. But if you can get past the geek factor, the bikes aren’t half bad, and the silly-looking baskets mounted to the front and sides are handy for hauling beer back to your hotel.
Needless to say, the bike racks don’t offer complimentary helmets, and few people think of packing one for a trip. Add to that danger the neck-breaking traffic that clogs Austin streets, and you could be taking your life in your hands. Thankfully, a lot of downtown streets were blocked during SXSW, and people there don’t seem to mind sharing their wide sidewalks with feckless tourists on rental bikes.
The bottom line: B-cycle was a game-changer for SXSW (for me, anyway). I had made up my mind that 2014 would be the last year I’d ever attend — my body just can’t take 16 straight hours of walking. But now that Austin has B-cycle (and I’ve learned how to use it), I’m already planning for next year’s festival.
B-cycle makes perfect sense in Austin. The city’s massive entertainment district, with a few exceptions, is somewhat flat, especially along the Colorado River and 6th St. corridor. Other than a handful of days every year, Austin’s weather is tolerably warm throughout the winter. And the local government has begun investing in separated bike lanes. But beyond that, laid-back Austinites are bike-tolerant. Motorists expect to see bikes in the street, and pedestrians don’t mind making room on sidewalks with cyclists when the necessity is obvious.
Omaha, on the other hand, is a different animal. When it comes to commuting by bicycle, our city has three strikes against it.
First, our weather is brutally cold beginning in November and ending in late March. Only the most rugged commuting pioneers dare to cycle to work during the winter months, braving both the bitter, sub-zero winds and slick, dirty ice that clogs the streets and sidewalks.
Secondly, our city’s terrain in many ways resembles San Francisco’s, with massive, steep hills that cut off downtown from neighborhoods west of 18th Street. Do as much topography research as you wish, there is no route from Dundee to downtown Omaha that doesn’t involve scaling or descending a mountain.
Finally, Omaha motorists are, well, assholes. The mentality here is that streets were designed for cars and cars alone, and if you’re not in one, then get the hell out of the way. Despite the city’s recent investment in creating “sharrows” and pseudo bike lanes, even the most hardcore bicycle enthusiasts admit riding a bike on Omaha city streets is dangerous. It’s only a matter of time before a careless driver comes a bit to close and sends you ass over teakettle — or worse, pulls right in front of you, launching you like a fragile paper doll over your handlebars and the hood of their SUV.
Can Omaha overcome these three seemingly insurmountable obstacles and become a bicycle commuting town like Austin and Denver and New York City? For answers, I turned to Ben Turner, who runs Omaha’s B-cycle program, and (in the best Buzzfeed tradition) YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HE SAID.
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at email@example.com.